Every year in January world leaders get together to discuss world politics in the illustrious mountains of Davos. This year in September the e-Estonia Briefing Centre had the pleasure to be partners of the second Davos Digital Forum, which is trying to give practical guidance to managing the digital transformation for the benefit of often rural municipalities.
The organizers got in touch with us, because they were looking for a detailed insight into the Estonian digital society to draw conclusions about Swiss digitalisation efforts. In the months ahead of the event together with the Davos Digital Forum, the Swiss Federal IT Steering Unit, and e-Government Switzerland, we’ve compared the e-governance landscapes in Switzerland and Estonia and made the following observations.
What is striking about the two states is obviously that in terms of political system, Switzerland has an added level due to its federal system. However, the municipal system and sets of municipal tasks are very similar. While Switzerland definitely is a high-tech country in many regards, particularly the issue of the digital ID has been a much contested one over the years. Estonia considers the digital identity to be the crucial ingredient of a digital society and generally also has implemented a strong legal framework for the underlying infrastructure of the digital society. In our comparison we discovered, that in fact, there’s a lot of optional recommendations regarding the digital transformation in Switzerland, which provide reasons to believe, that the issue about the digital administration in Switzerland is more about politics, leadership and organisation than the actual skills to transform the administration.
Based on the, in fact more extensive, comparison we came up with four key recommendations for kicking off the digital transformation in municipal environments.
1 vertical task management
As indicated above, there’s a couple of things that municipalities really rely on and which they can’t manage on their own – it’s probably one of the most crucial components of the Estonian digital society. The unique personal identifier, as the central part of the Estonian digital identity framework, and an interoperability layer or X-Road. These two need to be in place in order to be able to create an integrated framework for multi-level governance systems and the private sector. While this is probably the hardest thing to introduce in a federal state, it shouldn’t be a stopper for the municipalities to act on the following three things.
2 education, education
Back in the 1990s Estonia started its digital transformation based on strong educational efforts. Famously, the former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in an interview about the newly independent Estonia: “I said “Well, this [the internet] is one place where we are on a level playing field.” Whereas in everything else we had fifty years of backwardness to overcome.“ Educating teachers, children and also the working-age population in everything IT has been a strong focus in Estonia ever since – knowing what you’re talking about will help you navigate through today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.
3 digital leadership and change of mindset
The digital transformation shouldn’t be about waiting until somebody tells you what you need to do; there’s great potential in addressing it proactively. People, whether in municipalities or central government, have continuously taken responsibility for the digital agenda in Estonia. In fact, Estonian researchers believe that there’s a link between mayors using technologies and their local governments’ support for e-governance solutions. Obviously, that’s based on the previous recommendation, namely the skill in basic IT and awareness of the opportunities. Meaning, people in charge should go ahead and try to get citizens on board the digital transformation rather than estranging them by not addressing these issues.
In fact, municipalities are often the ones that are closest to the citizens, so why not take advantage of it. Provide training in IT to local employees and citizens in libraries and schools, invite them to give feedback and work on taking down the barrier between administration and citizens by inviting them to collaborate. If you want to dive deeper, German researcher Ines Mergel also has some great recommendations (in German) concerning managing local authorities and opportunities for innovation in local administration.
4 re-defining administration
Digital administration is not about filling forms online which you used to fill on paper. It should be about taking the opportunity and re-defining the processes, how citizens and authorities communicate and how each one’s burden can be limited. Key to this is understanding that whatever we submit or provide online, could be re-used and doesn’t, according to the once-only principle, need to be submitted again. With the help of information technology we can create added value and that could start in the municipalities. Take a look at the data and see what else it can be used for. Also, the less we duplicate data, the more the citizens would be able to control what happens to their data.
Digitalisation is an opportunity for improving. The more we exchange knowledge and experiences internationally like between Davos Digital and e-Estonia, the more educated we can act and address the concerns that people might have about the implications of the change that we’re all facing.
To conclude, I’d like to thank Petra Arends-Paltzer, Marcin Zielinski, Dieter Tschan, Marcel Keller and the great team of Davos Digital Forum for a brilliant forum and discussions. We’re looking forward to the next steps.
 Pappel, Ingrid; Tsap, Valentyna and Draheim, Dirk: The e-LocGov Model for Introducing e-Governance into Local Governments: an Estonian Case Study, in: Journal of LaTeX Class Files, Vol. 14, No. 8, August 2015, pg. 8.